For me, this past month has been one long (exhausting) experiment in pushing the envelope. You may know this phrase, which originated in the aeronautics field. It passed into more common usage after Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff (about supersonic aeronautics and the early US space program) was made into a movie by the same name in 1983.
In aeronautics “the envelope” means the limits of an aircraft’s performance capability. Pushing past it is risky. But people (being humans) quickly generalized it to meanings beyond the aerodynamics field. So, no. I haven’t been out there test flying high-performance aircraft. The performance capability I’ve been testing is my own.
In my newsletter last month, I listed the major things I do for Weird Sisters Publishing, to help keep it moving forward and growing. “My job as Chief Cat-Herder and Manager of Weirdness for Weird Sisters Publishing boils down to Art Director, Copywriter, Production Manager, and Marketing Director,” I wrote. And as you might guess, when I try to embody all those roles I work a lot of long hours. Pushing the envelope becomes a way of life if I’m not careful!
Pushing the Envelope is Not a Good Lifestyle
Some of you will read that subhead and think “well, duh! Of course it isn’t!” Others may frown and think, “But I do that all the time!” Sad to say, “I do that all the time,” even though “Of course it isn’t!”
I suspect that working long hours and testing our performance capabilities – pushing our personal envelopes – is endemic to running a small business. I know I’m not alone when I end the day thinking, “I could have done more!” or “darn it, I didn’t finish it all!” Part of the reason I’m a “night owl” is that ever since I was a kid resisting bedtime, I’ve never wanted to stop when prudence demanded it. There’s always so much interesting stuff yet to do!
But recently I’ve rediscovered that when I’m so stressed out that my fingertips tingle, it is a very bad sign. It’s hard to see this fact in the moment, when I’m yawning my head off but still “in the flow.” But it’s actually more efficient – and I’m more effective – if I’ll stop, put it down, and go TF to bed! Or take a break. Or stop and refresh/reframe.
In this Case I’m a Slow Learner
Every few years I have to re-learn this lesson. That isn’t just my guess or impression. I have hard evidence! Exhibit A? A blog post I wrote in 2020. Back then, I was juggling weekly posts on three different blogs (with different content) and trying to finish production on a publishing project.
Fast-forward to now. I’m trying to pre-schedule social media posts on four different outlets each week. Produce a bi-weekly blog. Consistently publish a monthly author newsletter. And also finish production on FIVE publishing projects. Oh, yes – and simultaneously write a new novel. On a deadline. Well, actually, they’re all on deadlines, aren’t they?
Sure. No pressure. Piece of cake, right?
Continuous Improvement vs. Pushing the Envelope
I’ve gotten more efficient over time. I’ve developed much slicker systems for drafting and organizing each of those aforementioned functions. Each is a far smoother process than when I first started doing them. That’s because I frequently take time to reflect on what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and why I’m doing it. Basically, it’s my take on the business concept of continuous improvement. And it works pretty well for me.
But nothing can be improved forever. Eventually we hit the ceiling, the apex of what’s possible, working with the given limitations. We can expand our envelope, our capacity, our limit, only so far. Pushing the envelope beyond that carries guaranteed problems, plus ever-greater risks of disaster.
But unlike with Chuck Yeager’s “Glamorous Glennis,” the risks to a person running a small creative business don’t include physically exploding, breaking up, or falling out of the sky. Our risks from pushing the envelope of stress lie more in the realms of disaster to our health and relationships.
What’s the Answer? Or is that “What are the Answers”?
I certainly don’t want to bring on disaster to my health and relationships. And thank God I’m not forced to make a toxic choice. If I can just pull my head up out of the cycle and get a broader perspective, I can find a better way forward.
The first step is realizing, “oops, I did it again.” What’s needed after that is (1) getting perspective and (2) yet more “continuous improvement” – but of a different sort. Instead of optimizing my systems for doing specific tasks, I need to re-center on my ultimate goals. Are all of the things I’m doing still central to my primary objectives?
I often find that some of them don’t yield the same benefits they once did. I can stop doing them, or maybe adjust their requirements and do them less often. Is filling out a checklist that I’ve consistently neglected for a while still helpful? Or was it once a learning scaffold that I no longer need? Maybe it’s now busywork. Have I found that a certain measurement gives no helpful information, so I can stop measuring that thing/aspect?
Business needs – like life itself – are always changing. Pushing the envelope can create a powerful momentum if it’s well-targeted. But every once in a while all of us have to stop, back up, and review what we’re doing.
It’s not pushing the envelope alone that yields success. It’s (briefly, and only when needed) pushing the right ones.
Many thanks to my image sources for this post, as noted in the cutlines above. They are WIRED Magazine, “ocusfocus,” via 123rf, More Famous Quotes, and Visible Dynamics. Y’all helped me make my point, and I appreciate it! 😊